For most drummers, playing the drums is just a hobby and does not require the kind of practice that a professional or more serious musician would require. Most drummers will slip behind the drum kit when the mood takes them, whack on a tune and simply start playing along to it…and that’s fine by the way.
But for the more serious player there is a need to improve and to strive for a better ability behind the drums. This is where a serious practice routine comes in and this article is going to talk about the things that make practice efficient, fun and most importantly, effective.
The Aims Of A Good Drum Practice Session
There are three aims that a drummer should have at the back of their mind while practising.
A drummer should always be looking to improve themselves no matter what idea they are working on. It is all to common for drummers to play ideas and songs that they can already play and so miss out on the opportunity to actually improve on something they CAN’T do. Every practice session should include a new challenge for the drummer and so working on new ideas/exercises that have never been accomplished before should be a priority.
If the drummer wants to play something they have already worked on because they feel it still requires more work or simply for fun then they should aim for perfection. Once a basic pattern or song has been learnt the drummers focus can then turn to the smaller things (often the most important ironically) such as your posture on the drums, timing, hand/foot technique, counting etc. Aiming for perfection in whatever the drummer practices will help to ensure excellent results.
The drummer should not forget the main reason they are actually playing an instrument for in the first place – to serve the music! Everything that is played or learnt should be used in a musical context. It’s no good learning some four limbed polyrhythm for six months and then never being able to use with your band because you never learnt how to use it musically. Playing ideas, grooves, fills, rudiments along to music gives the musician the musical context in which they can be used.
Equipment That Is Required For Effective Drum Practice
Here is a simple list of some of the items that I feel any serious drummer should own and have set up in their practice room. Some are more important than others and it should be understood that effective improvements can still be made without them…but they certainly help!
Metronome – Playing along to a metronome (discussed later) is the most effective tool a drummer has to improve and perfect their timing. All exercises in theory could and should be played along to a metronome.
Practice Pad – The practice pad offers the drummer the chance to practice hand technique in relative silence (any time of day/evening) away from the distraction of the full drum kit. This means they can concentrate purely on their stickings/grip/hand technique.
Music System – Having some kind of music player near or next to the practice kit allows the drummer the chance to play along to music. A remote control for the player is even more useful as the drummer is then able to rewind, pause and skip music at will. A personal music player such as an iPod would work just as well.
Music Stand – Many of my students simply don’t own a music stand as it is considered unnecessary for progress. This means that they tend to place their music on one of the drums instead (usually the floor tom) disabling the use of that drum. Having a stand next to the drum kit gives the drummer clear and comfortable viewing access to their music without getting in the way of the drum kit.
Ear Plugs – How much should a musician appreciate their own hearing? Bit of a silly question really as the answer is obvious! With so many ear plugs for musicians on the market at competitive prices there really is no excuse any more. Drumming WILL damage your hearing over time and there is no getting away with it. Every drummer should own a set of quality ear plugs!
How To Practice
There is a saying from a man called Rubinstein, a very famous pianist and he said…
“If I don’t practice for a day, I notice. If I don’t practice for two days, my friends notice. And if I don’t practice for three days, the whole audience notices.”
This is the key to getting better on the drums; REGULAR Practice. How often and for how long is up to the drummer but it is generally agreed that a little each day is the best way to improve.
The drums are a physical instrument and the body has to learn movements (much like dancing), the way the body learns complicated movements is to use something known as muscle memory. This muscle memory allows the performer to execute patterns and movements without the musician having to really think about it. The muscles have memorised the movement and are simply repeating them. Of course it’s not actually the muscles that are storing the memory but it does feel that way.
The only way for the body to perfect and execute these complicated movements through muscles memory is from slow, steady and REGULAR practice.
If a drummer can practice for at least twenty minutes every day on patterns carefully, slowly and methodically then they can’t help but improve. It’s the regular practice that makes the difference.
A drummer shouldn’t practice for too long at a time. It has been proved that the average human can only concentrate properly for about twenty minutes at a time. It is because of this that the musician should take a ten minute break away from the drum kit/pad every twenty minutes, especially if working on something mentally demanding. With the use of regular breaks the drummer will make their practice sessions more successful and less stressful.
The next important point to make about practice and I’m sure that you have all heard this said by teachers the world over is to practice slowly. The muscle memory aspect of playing, mentioned earlier, has to be given a chance to learn its movements and this can only be achieved (properly) by slow and careful practice. It’s obvious I know but it can’t be overstated how important this is, everything played on the drums should initially be played slowly and carefully to ensure it is leant properly and accurately. It can always be sped up later.
Another aspect of practice that I don’t think enough drummers take seriously enough (perhaps even myself!) is the use of the metronome. Most electric kits have them built in and an acoustic drummer can purchase one for less than £20. It should be obvious that the drummer’s most important, number ONE role in a band/live setting is to keep time. That’s what the drummer does in essence; they become the metronome for the rest of the band.
Where does the drummer learn to keep perfect time? Exactly! Playing along to recorded music will help to teach a drummer how to keep their tempo steady but practicing their own exercises, grooves and fills should be done to a metronome. The drummer should think of the repeating “click” as another band member (albeit playing a very boring instrument) if they are having trouble staying in time initially. With a little practice it should become easier and then hopefully a permanent aspect of their routine.
Another aspect of good practice is to count out loud all exercises/grooves when played initially. This helps to internalise the timing and construction of the rhythm being played. Counting out loud could be thought of as a fail safe mechanism in that the drummer knows they have learnt the pattern if they can perform it while counting it. If the counting isn’t speeding or slowing then this is a good sign that something has been learnt properly.
A little trick I use before trying to play an exercise/rhythm is to try and sing it using syllables such as “boom” for bass drum, “bah” for snare, “T” for hi-hat and “baba-daba-doom” for the toms from high to low. If I can sing it then I can usually play it and again it helps me to internalise the rhythm before attempting to execute it. Try this technique yourself, it really works!
As mentioned earlier in the article the drummer should be aiming for perfection of whatever it is they are trying to play/learn. With this in mind the drums should also be hit perfectly. The drummer should be aiming for the centre of each drum and trying to execute a clean and pleasing sound. Cymbals should be hit correctly and at the back of the drummers mind should be the idea of looking to play their instrument with correct grip, posture and execution. If the drummer feels and looks comfortable/competent then the playing will generally be also. Posture, technique and drum sound all help to make a great drummer.
The musicians practice routine should be varied often enough to keep things interesting. It’s no good working on an idea for six months if at the end of the six months the drummer is bored to death of hearing it. A practice session can and should contain multiple ideas that the drummer plans to work on. They shouldn’t spend an entire session on just one idea as the body and brain tends to give up on it before the will of the player has. The drummer can always revisit the idea later on in the session or the next day.
Keeping things varied will help to round out a player, the body can get into habits and if exercises are practiced too much then it becomes difficult to play anything other than that exercise. You might have experienced this yourself when on stage and you aren’t able to stop playing the same kind of drum fill for example, no matter how hard you try to vary them. Making sure that the a drummer practices new ideas on a regular basis not only helps to push them in new directions but also stops a player stagnating with their own style.
It is important to remember that practice should be thought of as a long distance race and not a sprint. Think long term when practising as ideas can take days, weeks or even months before sounding close to correct. You need to be in it for the long term if you expect to see results so be patient when practising. It hardly ever happens immediately. This is why having a varied practice schedule will help you because if you get frustrated with one idea then it can be put on hold till the next day and something else can be worked on instead. It’s such a shame when a drummer gives up on something because they don’t “get it” straight away!
OK, so far we have talked about the How’s and Why’s but now its time to look at the What’s…
What To Practice
Well, I can’t tell you. Sorry but that is something that only the player knows themselves depending on what they want to achieve and what they want to get out of their practice.
What I can do though is give you a list of ideas that I think should be included in a practice session at some point. They can’t all be included in one session but should be scheduled to be included over time.
Stick control – Making sure that the sticks are hitting the drums/cymbals correctly and that rudiment’s such as doubles and paradiddles are not being executed poorly.
Playing with a metronome – As mentioned previously the metronome can be used with EVERYTHING during practice. Develop a solid sense of time!
Playing to ALL music – Try playing along to Jazz for example or Metal, this will make you a more rounded player and give you new ideas and perspectives.
Odd timing – Try playing in odd time signatures such as 7 or 5, even if it’s just for fun. Being able to play in odd time signatures develops a deeper sense of time and beat placement.
Left hand lead – Playing rhythms and fills leading with the left hand. Not only does it strengthen the weaker hand but it also gives a new perspective on a player’s technique and abilities.
Double bass drumming – If metal is your style of choice then this is probably already being practiced. Double bass drum ideas can be used in all styles of music though, even in Jazz if executed tastefully. Double bass drum technique can open up windows of new possibilities on the drum set!
Fast tempos – Set the metronome at a fast tempo and simply try to keep up for as long as possible. It helps to work a player’s stamina behind the drums.
Slow tempos – Playing slowly can be deceptively hard, most inexperienced drummers tend to speed up.
Even/Odd groupings of notes – This isn’t the same as playing in varying time signatures. As an example a drummer could work on an idea that lasts for six notes (four on the hands, two on the bas drum) and try to play it through 16th notes, then triplets, then 32nd notes. Again, the possibilities are endless and could awaken all kinds of ideas in a player.
Polyrhythms – Try finding some ideas on online or from the many great book already available. Your sense of time and note placement will be hugely improved.
Beat displacement and/or metric modulation – Not quite the same as polyrhythms and this isn’t the place to explain the difference. Gavin Harrison has released some excellent books on this subject.
Shuffles – Playing in triplets is often overlooked for the more funky and popular straighter rhythms. Don’t neglect your ability to play a mean shuffle, they appear in all kinds of music.
Showmanship (stick twirling, etc) – Well, why not?! Just don’t let it affect your playing.
Creating your own patterns and ideas – This could be simply taking an idea you can already play and substituting parts of it for different drums, limbs or subdivisions. Put your sticks down for a minute and think over your patterns logically, you’ll be surprised with the ideas you can come up with.
Accent patterns – Being able to play a single stroke roll for example with accents wherever they may be desired.
Travelling around the drum kit – Being able to play two notes on each drum while travelling around the kit, then three, then four etc. How fast can you get from one drum to the other without it sounding sloppy? This can be applied to doubles as well as other rudiments.
Left hand and left foot – Try working on just the weaker side to help develop strength and endurance.
Brush technique – If you plan to play Jazz or simply want an extra string to your bow then try learning a few patterns with brushes. If you’ve never tried before then you might be surprised by how much fun brushes can be.
Soloing – The great drummers can all solo. A good solo often involves a musical theme of some kind and not necessarily blasting out favourite licks at lighting speed (although this can also sound pretty cool).
Recording yourself and listening back – Try it if you have the equipment, this is great tool to check on yourself. A drummer’s playing often sounds totally different when listened too on a recording rather than at the time from behind the kit.
The 40 drum rudiments – The rudiments have got a bad reputation amongst young drummers for being boring and irrelevant. This is quite unfair. The rudiments are the language of drums, everything a player does can be related back to a rudiment. They can help a player to develop their soloing skills as well as creating exciting drum fills and even drum grooves.
I think a drummer has had a good practice session when they have achieved at least one goal they set themselves at the beginning of the session. Setting goals and aims is an important aspect of practice and every player should have a good idea of what it is they want to learn or achieve by the end of a practice session. If they stick with the goals set in practice and do not become disheartened by difficulties then they will succeed.
So there you go, a lot to digest but it’s up to you as to what you take away with you. Good luck and remember that you only get out what you put in!
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